SPECIAL REPORT: City of Midland says ordinance against panhandlers is a freedom of speech violation

SPECIAL REPORT: City of Midland says ordinance against panhandlers is a freedom of speech violation

MIDLAND, TX (KWES) - It's no mystery panhandling in Midland is growing, the city said they don't expect it to slow down anytime soon.

With reports of panhandlers knocking on car windows and getting in the middle of roads, it's made us wonder what is the city doing to ensure everyone's safety.

The City of Midland said there aren't any ordinances in place to gain control over the number of panhandlers on the street and don't plan on adding one either.

"That has been asked to me several times, 'Can we stop panhandling? Can we put in ordinance in place that doesn't allow it?' The advice we've gotten from the legal department from the city is we can't really do that because it's a freedom of speech, it falls under that category and it could set us up for a lot of lawsuits," said Midland Mayor Jerry Morales.

Transportation code says even though panhandling isn't illegal, you cannot solicit on anything other than a sidewalk, curb or median. It's something that the Midland Police Department (MPD) said they've already started to see.

"A lot of time we'll either issue them a Class C citation for soliciting on the roadway or or tell them, 'Hey, that's illegal to solicit on the roadway, move on.' You just want you citizens to live somewhere where it's safe and nice," said Sgt. Jimmy Young with MPD.

Church Under the Bridge not only helps the homeless, but they also help city of Midland handle the panhandlers.

"Several years ago we had a group of homeless that were living across the street from where we have church and next thing you know there were 20, 25, 30 tents up and it looks like a little tent city," said the founder of Church Under the Bridge, Evan Rogers. "The city could've easily said, 'You're all getting tickets, you gotta go now.' and instead what they did was they called us and said, 'Hey is there anything you can do to help these guys find a place to go?'"

A ticket for soliciting on the roadway costs $500, Rogers said that's something panhandlers can't pay for and after getting a ticket like that, panhandlers end up behind bars.

"For the most part they want to abide by the rules, they really  really do," said Rogers. "To be honest with you, if I was homeless I would want to spend 5 nights in jail opposed to on the streets."

Morales admits Midland doesn't have enough resources for the amount of homeless in the city.  Instead, he said the city wants to continue to help non-profits that can help those in need.

"From a city standpoint, city government, it's challenging because where do the funds come from? The facility? Then you just need hundreds of volunteers to run it so it is hard," said Morales. "So from a city standpoint, we want to support those organizations and do what we can to make sure that they can stay afloat and continue doing that good service."

"Midland is very much about their image, which is a good thing and I think that's great. So I think that when people think of Midland and think of people that are homeless and resources, I think that they think those are needs in bigger cities and not a need in a small town in West Texas," said Rogers. "But the reality is we have close to 300 people that are homeless and over 500 M.I.S.D. students that are considered homeless. There comes a time that there needs to be a reality check and know that these people are here."

Rogers said if Midland were to implement a city ordinance to bring down the number of panhandlers it would drive away many of the people driving from city to city and just making a stop in Midland, but others struggling with alcohol and drug addictions would do it regardless.

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